Why some men are so lost
This article originally happened in 2009 for Man Week, a campaign by Reachout to raise awareness about men and mental health issues.
It led to a 2012 TEDx talk, The World Would Be Less Strange If We Stopped Making Strangers Out of Men
Isn’t it interesting that the current Man Week campaign from Reachout to get young guys to open up is challenging guys to be tough enough to reveal themselves?
Isn’t this ‘man enough’ ideal the problem? So, isn’t using it to challenge guys to talk still keeping the issue in the very construct that’s doing them harm?
Ah, Man Week, how I love thee.
Some personal background
I’m really interested in manhood stuff. Hopefully, before I leave this life, I’ll have made an impact in the area. But I’m still working out how personal to get online about it all. Here’s why:
My parents split when I was young. I grew up mostly with a mum and a sister. Things often got hectic. I went to a good school but grew up in inner city Sydney – Glebe, when it was less pretty. I got shuffled a little bit between homes an hour away from each other. Few kids from my school lived in either area. I disappeared into sport, music and words (then, as a young adult, martial arts and a magazine). I was mostly transient with groups of mates – I’d hang with the Asian kids, kids from Glebe, the intelligent kids, hip hop kids, North Shore kids… but, mostly, I walked to my own beat.
My parents are good people. I’ve learnt since having kids that being an adult isn’t simple. But I felt hollow about 2 particular things a lot of the time as a young guy.
The first was a feeling of permanent vulnerability
Maybe, it’s something – as a teenager – I romanticised (I could have been listening to too much hip hop): being a latchkey kid in Glebe was something I felt so adult about at the time (mind you, I walked myself to school as a 5 year old) but I always had this underlying sense of vulnerability. I had no male backup. No brothers, no dad in the area, few lifelong mates nearby. Getting searched and threatened by local police was a badge of honour. Kids always carried weapons – if only a screwdriver. We enjoyed the randomness because it felt like we had control of not having control. Everything else, we had no say in. It was twisted.
The second thing I felt hollow about was trust
I didn’t trust anyone. I’m still learning to deal with this. I guess being moved around a bit between houses, having a lot of adults come in and out of your life when you’re young (parents’ new friends, partners, dates), you just… turn off. You stop giving new people attention because you think they won’t be there a week later. You get used to people not living up to their promises so you become cynical and don’t think anyone will hold true to their promises. You have this idea that every time your parent ends a new relationship, it’s your fault. Because your parents have kids. Sometimes, they even accidentally say this.
So what are some of the issues facing male-dom?
1. Being a man is intrinsically about physicality
Being a teenager and young man is almost entirely about physicality. Sport defines organised social hierarchy. Physical appearance determines what group you become part of, and whether someone thinks you’re worth picking a fight with. As a kid, I was pretty. But as soon as I was spending more time roaming the streets I had 2 ear-rings (early 90’s!), I shaved my head, I wore baggy pants, tracksuits, Air Max, bandanas, caps … all the corny stuff.
In all honesty, I did this to project someone tougher than I was because I felt so vulnerable and insecure. I see photos now and cringe. I wasn’t big but I needed to feel big.
2. Many men don’t know any better
I’ve had a lot of occasions in my life when I felt really alone. When I was 17, one of my ex-girlfriends passed away from cystic fibrosis. I felt so bad – not only because she was a wonderful person, but also because I couldn’t handle the idea of where her condition would inevitably lead when I was dating her. I nearly crashed the car on Birkenhead Bridge when I drove to the hospital to try to see her for the last time – I was so panicked. She wanted us to remember her as she was, so I didn’t get to apologise. I wish I had her strength.
Still, my mates pretty much just left me alone for two weeks. None came to the funeral because it was O-Week at their respective unis or they had lectures. No one wanted to talk to me about it. I think one of my parents asked me how the funeral was. I was just… out there… alone. So I wrote about it like I always did.
3. Testosterone and the Neanderthal
I think the real challenge facing Man Week and the conversation about young adults needs to take into account the fact that, biologically, men are bred for action, for violence, for dumb stuff. From what I’ve read (and I’m not pretending to be an expert), our brains are wired for the hunt.
Doing martial arts, we got to talk a bit about fight psychology and the way the brain works. Next time you see an altercation, you’ll probably notice a few phases. When there is distance between the people the talk is longer – full sentences (“What are you looking at? I said, what are you looking at?”). As they get closer, the chat becomes more monosyllabic (“What? Yeah? You!”), sight becomes more tunnel vision, the adrenaline dump happens and you either fight or flee. They say the best way to diffuse these situations is to ask a question back and give distance to the protagonist; and the best way to avoid them – advice I will definitely pass to my son – is to not hang out with morons in stupid places. Your ego heals faster than your body.
My point? Men need different coping mechanisms. It’s not just about getting them to talk. They need to understand that they are wired for certain behaviour and that there are things they can do about it. But they also shouldn’t feel ashamed of this fact.
4. It takes a real dad
I have two kids. I want to be a great dad. I’m at work too much. Sometimes, I’m distracted or half-asleep when I’m at home. I fear over-compensating for all of the above. But all I want for my kids is for them to find their own rhythm in life. I don’t know what a real dad is. But, I know that when my son kisses my daughter on the head randomly, we’re doing the right thing. I also wrestle with him and try to teach him about physicality and the boundaries that are OK to play within.
5. It also takes a village
This is something I truly believe our society has lost sight of: it takes a village to raise a child. Everyone’s so busy. Everyone’s looking out for themselves. There was research that I read in The Australian 2 weeks ago that said that today’s grandparents don’t want to mind their grandchildren. What’s going on? I’m wrestling with this one a bit… I’m not contributing enough to the ‘village’ for starters. Thing is, I don’t know where it is, either. We’re all over the place.
Just to be clear, I don’t write about this stuff for sympathy or to put myself out there as this sensitive guy. I write about it hoping someone will relate to it – and not feel alone. I write about it hoping it will shed light on common themes I’ve come across and that my story is just an example of the many things that guys are trying to work out and deal with. It’s not a competition – I’ve met so many people who’ve had incredible battles in their lives. Maybe me writing some simple stuff will encourage them to write about their own adventures.
Other blogs to read for Man Week
- Becoming a man: dealing with personal problems by Julian Cole (@juliancole)
- Being a dad by Matt Moore (@innotecture)
- Balls and bravado by Gavin Heaton (@servantofchaos)
- Fathers are funny by Franksting (@franksting)
- Media and males by Media Hunter (@mediahunter)
- Dealing with bullying by Matt Hazel (@matthazel)
- A man in advertising by Stan Lee (@BrandDNA)
- My greatest life challenge by Joely Righteous (@joelyrighteous)
- Return to Colombia (about being adopted) by Jye Smith (@jyesmith)
- My dad by Age (@AgeC)
- Balls on the line by Zac Martin (@zacmartin)
- Being young and learning about masculinity by Joel Connolly (@joelconnolly)
- An understanding dad by Ross Raeburn (@rossraeburn)
- The hardest time of my life by Tim Beveridge (@timmwardion)
- Black dog days by Andy Ley (@andyley)
- On being a man and losing a loved one by Scott Drummond (@Scott_Drummond)
- Fighting the Stereotypical Aussie Male by Gavin Bollard (@gbollard)
- Some thoughts for my boys by Darryl King (@ireckon)
- Writing about talking by Urthboy (@urthboy)
- The Errol Flynn Skill Set by Alan Jones (@bigyahu)
- Man stuff by Ashley Ringrose (@100ftzombie)
- An Open Letter to Dad by Edward Harran (@edwardharran)
- Becoming a dad and more of a man by Trent Collins (@tcollins)
- Fathers by Andrew Blanda (@AndrewBlanda)
- Watching my brother struggle to find himself by Kara Lee (@karalee_)
- Second time lucky by David Phillips (@cafedave)
- Reachout’s Man Week blog
If you’re on Twitter sharing Man Week links, tag them with #manweek
Update: We compiled a book of many of these stories, The Perfect Gift for a Man. Download it!
For more on men, try these:
- Why We Need To Stop Making Strangers Out of Men
- How to Get a Man to Open Up
- What I Learned Growing Up in a Singles Club
Photo courtesy Jeezny.
What do you think?
Either below or on your own blog, please leave some of yourself behind.
Can I hold you to that? Sign up for an email reminder…